Professional Development

‘Book Study’ Helps Teachers Hone Skills

By Bess Keller — May 16, 2008 7 min read
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On media-center couches and at conference-room tables, downing Cokes and sipping coffee together, teachers around the country are cracking open books to get better at what they do—and, often, relishing the experience.

The pairing of books and teachers might seem natural, but it has taken the convergence of at least two trends to move “book study” far up the list of the way teachers spend their professional-development time.

For one, many observers, not least teachers themselves, are convinced that teachers are obligated to upgrade their classroom skills. For another, the most effective way to do that, according to a growing chorus of educators and experts, is through work on practice located within schools, conducted among colleagues, and, above all, well integrated with teachers’ day-to-day work.

Enter book study—easily localized and collegial, hugely adaptable. It is also relatively cheap at a time of rising costs and declining revenue.

“My district is finding teachers are already involved,” said Wendy A. Rothman, who introduced book study to her fellow kindergarten and 1st grade teachers at Wines Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Now, districts are moving toward using these book groups for professional development.”

For example, the Ann Arbor school system, in cooperation with neighboring University of Michigan, is using study of the book series Young Mathematicians at Work, by Catherine Fosnot and Maarten Dolk, to prepare teachers from across the 17,000-student district for summer school classes targeted at students who have fallen behind.

At Wines Elementary, Ms. Rothman persuaded her colleagues to use part of their common planning time this semester to discuss The Continuum of Literacy Learning.

“When I started reading it, I said, ‘This is a secret I can’t keep to myself,’ ” the kindergarten teacher recalled.

She and others said one beauty of book study is that, kept to small groups, it can foster new insights and change even among the most guarded teachers. “They have their own private learning experience with their group,” said Ms. Rothman, “[where] they don’t expect to be judged by colleagues and they hope to learn from them.”

Not an Add-On

What Teachers Are Reading: A Sampling

HARDY ELEMENTARY Chattanooga, Tenn.
Differentiated Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson
Shows how to use students’ readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles to address student diversity.

The Daily Five: Fostering Literacy Independence in the Elementary Grades by Gail Boushey & Joan Moser
Lays out a series of literacy tasks (reading to self, reading with someone else, writing, word work, and listening to reading) for students to perform among themselves. The book also describes the teacher’s work meeting

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
Demonstrates how a particular mindset about success and potential can affect all areas of life, from business to sports to school.

The Broken Letter: Divorce Through the Eyes of a Child by Carl Lawrence
A 12-year-old experiencing the pain of his parents’ divorce puts his thoughts into letters to his departed father.

Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right— Using It Well by Rick Stiggins, Judith A. Arter, Jan Chappuis & Stephen Chappuis
Research-grounded methods point the way to improved student motivation and learning through improved classroom assessment.

The Continuum of Literacy Learning, Grades K-8: Behaviors and Understandings to Notice, Teach, and Support by Gay Su Pinnell & Irene C. Fountas
Provides a powerful tool enabling curriculum coordinators and literacy specialists to better observe teaching and learning, plan responsive instruction, and ensure consistency across buildings, grades, or classrooms.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
A foster girl living outside Munich, Germany, during World War II learns to read and shares her stolen books with neighbors during bombing raids.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
Explores a small-town high school shooting in fiction, looking at the truth and consequences of the event. with neighbors during bombing raids.

Library Director Katherine Dorko assisted in the research for this chart.

In fact, book study has been used for years by principals to build awareness of directions for change in a nonthreatening manner, said Stephanie Hirsch, the executive director of the National Staff Development Council headquartered in Dallas, the national group for educators who specialize in training others.

Down the road, Ms. Hirsch said, the approach can help faculties make decisions about where they will put their energy and commitment. Books by Phillip C. Schlechty, such as Creating Great Schools, or Robert J. Marzano’s The Art and Science of Teaching have paved the way for further work under the guidance of those educators.

Finally, book study alone can be used to “promote deeper understanding of concepts and actual transfer of ideas to practice,” Ms. Hirsch said.

Natalie Elder, the principal of Hardy Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tenn., was so awed by the pertinence of consultant Ruby J. Payne’s message for her school that she started her first book study with Ms. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.Hardy’s 50-member instructional staff discussed the book and a companion volume monthly over a year and a half.

Book study is now woven into the school’s professional development, which the 40,000-student district has seen as an important lever for improvement at Hardy and eight other inner-city elementary schools.

At Salem Middle School in Cary, N.C., teacher teams have each taken up a title from a book list compiled by administrators, allowing the teams to address weaknesses but stick with common school goals, according to teacher William Ferriter.

As social studies and English teachers, members of Mr. Ferriter’s team were concerned that they were not collecting enough data on students’ mastery of more advanced skills in the required curriculum. So they settled on Classroom Assessment for Student Learning as their text. With parts of the book as a guide, this year the group broke each social studies standard into measurable parts and wrote assessments for each.

“Sounds like an easy and logical task—but it was one we’d never considered and never had the time to tackle!” wrote Mr. Ferriter in an e-mail. “We’re proud of what we have now—and already have the next part planned—rewriting standards into kid-friendly language that starts with the phrase, ‘I can.’ ”

Mr. Ferriter, a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, which fosters enlarged roles for teachers, said that the key to the success of book study at his school is that it is not an add-on to more central endeavors. “Book study—combined with regular [team] meetings—is the professional development in our building.”

Teacher-Led Work

One appeal of book study is that it allows teachers to take the lead in informing their colleagues and seizing a moment in the life of a school.

That happened at Valley Middle School in Grand Forks, N.D., after teacher-mentor Laurie Stenehjemread Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman, a book addressing reading comprehension. After some of its ideas helped an English teacher, that teacher organized a study group around the book and several related ones, which led to a similar districtwide effort and later an online course with Ms. Stenehjem as one of the teachers.

“I am a big believer in the need for both bottom-up and top-down change,” the veteran teacher said. “Book studies are wonderful because they build this bottom-up direction.”

Some teachers prize book study, at least in part, because it knits together staff members. “We have really gotten to know each other as teachers and friends,” Heather Ferris, a literacy teacher in the elementary grades at Portville Central School in rural Portville, N.Y., wrote in an e-mail. As a result, she added, “you will see teachers more apt to share their ideas and questions about what they are teaching.”

While most of the books that show up as the subject of study seem to have to do with teaching practice or school reform, they can range more widely, with a variety of purposes.

At Chets Creek Elementary School in Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, the book-study program this year gives teachers a choice of seven books, fiction or memoir, all dealing with the lives of children as they cope with autism, poverty, divorce, abuse, and other realities of contemporary life. Dayle M. Timmons, a literacy coach at the school and a former state teacher of the year, wrote in an e-mail that the activity gives teachers a way to “live the life of a reader.” In that spirit, the groups will discuss not only the books’ themes, but also the author’s craft, Ms. Timmons wrote in her blog.

While Chets Creek’s effort is required professional development, two high schools across the country from each other have found value in offering voluntary book groups to teachers who want to explore issues pertinent to the lives of teenagers. At Palo Alto High School in California, about a dozen teachers talked last year about Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Talking Together in the Cafeteria? This year, a group is tackling Mindset, which argues against the reality of fixed intelligence and for the value of effort.

The book “is informing our teaching in how we give feedback to students: praise for effort, leading to increased growth, rather than praising on what might seem to be innate qualities,” wrote Elizabeth Brimhall in an e-mail. She organized the groups as part of her school’s teacher-directed staff development.

Sherry L. Annee, the science department chairwoman at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, has introduced her school to two books that address the pressures on high-achieving high school students like the ones at Brebeuf: Edward Humes’ School of Dreams andOverachievers by Alexandra Robbins. More than half the staff members have read and discussed the books, which also sparked student panels and a visit from Ms. Robbins.

Recreational Book Clubs

Amid all the serious professional work undertaken in book study, a few educators have found a place for recreational book clubs, the kind boosted in popularity by media mogul Oprah Winfrey. Teachers at Komanchin Middle School in Lacey, Wash., meet monthly on their own time to enjoy their good reads together. With the 800-student school organized into “houses,” many faculty members rarely see each other outside the book gathering, said Janet L. Brown, the school librarian and the book club’s organizer.

Over the six years of the club’s existence, the group has read books ranging from the mega-best-selling The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown to the recent literary sensation Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. The choices have been deliberately diverse, but each year the teachers pick one book from the “young adult” category meant to appeal to their students.

And as teachers’ biases might have it, one such book, concerning a girl saved by reading, won special plaudits. “Our all-time favorite,” said Ms. Brown, “is probably The Book Thief.”

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Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘Book Study’ Helps Teachers Hone Skills


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